Lovejoy and Coriolanus

Blogging has been very light round here for the last week or so – I have been travelling a lot, with some unexpected wrinkles and last-minute changes of plan, am behind in bookblogging and also in the middle of three very thick books.

But I will break my silence with notes on a couple of screen adaptations which I watched today of texts which I already knew in another form. They are colossally different in quality. The first of the two was the very first Lovejoy episode, The Firefly Cage (1986),  based on the sixth Lovejoy book, The Firefly Gadroon (1981) – the first time I have watched one of the TV episodes since starting my sporadic read-through of the books. Well. One should be a little charitable because a lot of effort is exerted to set up the major recurring characters – Lovejoy himself, Tinker, Eric and Lady Jane Felsham – and the TV show is only starting to find its way in terms of tone, whereas by this stage the books were confident if not always on target. But even so, I think fans of the books tuning in hopefully back in 1986 would have been bitterly disappointed by this adaptation. It can't quite decide how violent the show is going to be, it can't decide how sexy it is going to be, and several crucial scenes from the novel are completely defused for the screen – Lovejoy prevents the burning of the firefly cages, there is no desperate struggle for survival on the sea fort, and the final explosive scene is played for laughs rather than allowing the bereaved donkey to exact her hideous revenge. Not very many of the TV episodes are based on the novels, and it's probably just as well; the tone is completely different and it was better to let the two continuities find separate levels.

Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus (2011) is quite a different matter. I was strangely fascinated by this play when I listened to it three years ago, and commented then that "An inspired director and actor could no doubt make something memorable of it, but it's tough material to work with." Fiennes has done a brilliant job as director and lead actor, bringing the struggle between Romans and Volsci quite literally to the modern Balkans – the Rome scenes are filmed in Belgrade and PanĨevo, the Volscian scenes in Montenegro, and Jon Snow does a terrific turn as TV news anchorman picking up the Shakespearean infodump characters to footage of the tanks rolling in. The show is almost stolen by Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus' electrifying mother Volumnia, but all the others are pretty good too (shouts to Brian Cox as Coriolanus' friend Menenius, Jessica Chastain as Coriolanus' wife Virgilia, and especially Gerard Butler as the Volscian leader Aufidius, who clearly has an erotic fascination with his enemy-turned-ally). Coriolanus himself is a bit one-dimensional as a character, but Fiennes makes up for it with fantastic visual direction, and also by playing the pivotal dramatic points in the play so effectively that, although you pretty much know what must happen next, you are able to suspend your disbelief. Very strongly recommended. I'm really surprised that it is not a better known play.

Incidentally I note that Paul Jesson, who played the tribune Brutus in this version (in a double act with James Nesbitt as Sicinius), was Aufidius in the 2004 audio I listened to, and also played the First Citizen when the BBC did the Complete Shakespeare thirty years ago. He must be able to recite it in his sleep by now.

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